Clip-clomp — Clip-clomp — Clip-clomp — Clip-clomp — Clip-clomp. She would never tire of the sound of her heels on the vinyl flooring of the only art museum in Des Moines. It was a constant reminder of her highest achievement in life: working in a Coastal District.
The floor, she was told, looked like something called “marble,” just as the wallpaper did. It wasn’t like the exposed concrete floors in most of the buildings. The art museum, being one of the only Coastal-exclusive venues in Des Moines, was made to look like a place on the Coasts.
Sometimes, when she arrived before anyone else or if she was still there after everyone else had gone home, she would stand at the entrance and just gaze around the large room and pretend she was on the Coasts.
She approached the Coastal gentleman who had just walked in and offered to take his suit jacket.
“No, thank you,” he said. “Is Jenna around? I heard you have some new pieces. I’d like for her to show them to me.”
She sucked in a sharp breath as she forced a smile and said, “Certainly. I’ll go get her.”
He always asked for Jenna, even though she had many times offered to show him any new items in their inventory herself. As the curator, she would think a tour from her would be the highest of honors. But one time she offered, and he told her if he wanted a tour from her he would ask for one. Afraid he might write a bad review about her in her permanent file, she took the hint that she was not to make the offer again. So she had not offered to show him new art since then, but she always greeted him to make sure he knew she was at his service. Though the museum was owned by the government, it was not uncommon for Coastals to make donations, and he was one of the most prominent donors and the only one who visited so regularly. If any Coastal could get her promoted to the Coasts, it was he.
“He’s here,” she said when she got to Jenna’s office. “He asked for you.”
He was the only one who ever asked for her.
Jenna looked at her and then at the clock. “Oh, yes, of course,” Jenna said as she got up.
“Were you expecting him?” she asked.
Jenna said, “Not for another thirty minutes, but that doesn’t matter.”
They walked together back to the entrance of the museum, where the Coastal gentleman was still waiting.
She smiled at him and gave a polite nod, while Jenna held out her hand and greeted him.
They shook hands, and then they made small talk as they walked away.
She pretended to check for something out of place on the wall while she watched them out of the corner of her eye for a few minutes.
Jenna was showing him one of the new paintings, and she could only assume they were talking about it. They were both looking at it and pointing to various parts of it. But she couldn’t imagine what on earth they were saying. It was just a painting of the row houses that served as the most common living quarters for Inlanders. Maybe Jenna was explaining to him what they were and what the layout was or something.
As for herself, she had not lived in a row house since she was redistributed at eighteen and sent to college. After she got a degree in business management, she was redistributed to Des Moines to manage the new Coastal-exclusive art museum in the Coastal District. She had worked her tail off to get a Societal Role working in a Coastal District, and she had ambitions to one day be promoted to Coastal status. So instead of living in government-provided housing, she opted to pay rent and applied to live in an apartment building in the Coastal District. She had always done everything she could to get promotions.
When she graduated with her degree and started working at the museum, she had been told she would be in charge, answering only to her boss who lived on the Coast and who visited on occasion to make sure everything was in order. She had been told she would be in charge of everything, including hiring employees.
But not long after she was assigned this Societal Role, her boss told her she had to hire Jenna as an event manager. Jenna was a Purebred who did not even have a college degree. Sure, she knew a lot about art, apparently, but a Purebred as a manager at a Coastal-exclusive venue? It was an outrage.
She watched as Jenna and the Coastal gentleman moved on to the next piece of new art. Another Coastal who was visiting the museum was nearby and joined them. She watched as the three of them talked, again pointing out different parts of the art. She didn’t understand why they spent so much time looking at it or what they could be saying about it. Or why anybody ever spent time looking at the art for more than a moment. Or why nobody ever asked her to join.
It was true that she was a businessperson, not an artist. She had hired employees with art degrees to talk with visitors about the art. They had degrees to prove that they knew about the art. She would have never hired Jenna, even if she had been Modified. How could she possibly know so much that they would have picked her? Did they teach that kind of thing in the Purebred Communities?
As for herself, she had gone through all the training for interacting with Coastals, took all the classes on manners and social customs so she could show her superiors that she would fit in on the Coasts. But whenever Jenna was on the floor–though that was rare because Jenna usually stayed in her office–Jenna always interacted so easily with the Coastals. Coastals loved Jenna.
It wasn’t fair.
It was good for the museum. It was awesome that Jenna always made her look good because their Coastal clients were always pleased with the service. But it still wasn’t fair. She had to work so hard to interact with the Coastals, and it just came so naturally to Jenna. Jenna made it look so easy.
And she worked so hard to try to understand the art museum and why Coastals even came here at all, but Jenna just seemed to get it. And after she had worked so hard to get a Societal Role in a Coastal District, in waltzed this Purebred that her boss told her she had to hire, even though Jenna did not seem qualified at all.
She had to admit that Jenna was a good worker. Jenna was smart. Jenna was management material. But Jenna was a Purebred. So Jenna was supposed to be confined to a Purebred Community. As a Purebred, Jenna wasn’t supposed to even be allowed to be assigned to a Societal Role in a Coastal District. It wasn’t fair.
She watched them laugh as they moved on to another room, and she walked over to the painting of the row houses. She stared at it, but after a couple seconds she still didn’t see what there was to talk about for so long.
Many times when this kind of thing happened in the past, she had considered asking Jenna to explain to her what was so interesting about the artwork in the museum. She had wanted to ask what they talked about. She had wanted to ask if she could walk with them and listen. She wanted to learn. But not from a Purebred.
She wondered what they had been pointing at. Maybe it was the piece of paint sticking out from the painting from a particularly thick brush stroke. She knew it annoyed her so much, ever since she saw it as soon as the piece was hung on the wall; maybe it annoyed them, too. Maybe that’s what they had been talking about: the flaw, the part of the painting that was not as smooth as the rest of the picture.
She decided she would fix it later, after the museum was closed.
But it annoyed her now.
She reached out and picked at the paint, chipping it off of the canvas with one of her nails.
Jenna would flip her lid if she saw me doing this right now, she thought.
The first time she touched a painting, Jenna told her not to–not in a mean or condescending way; Jenna was actually really nice. But to be corrected by an employee–and a Purebred at that!–was unacceptable. She reminded Jenna that she was the boss and that she was in charge of the museum.
Still, she looked around to make sure nobody else saw her. A Coastal had complained about her touching the art one time, and her boss told her not to do it again. The comment remained in her permanent file, but she was the one in charge of the museum. She didn’t have to obey the “Please Do Not Touch” signs. Most of the Coastals didn’t even look at the signs, anyway, not that they ever got within a foot of the art. That they all had the same habit of keeping a short distance from the art indicated to her that it must be some kind of Coastal thing.
She licked her thumb and touched the painting again, where she had chipped off the excess paint, and pressed into the canvas as she tried to smooth it out so it was as flat as the rest of the paint. There was a noticeable indentation in the canvas where her thumb had pressed it.
Oh well, she thought. It still looks better this way because now all the paint of the picture is consistently smooth.
She went back to her office until the Coastal gentleman left. After he was gone and Jenna was back at her desk, she got up and headed toward Jenna’s office.
Clip-clomp — Clip-clomp — Clip-clomp.
Just ask her, she told herself. You’re her boss. Just ask her what they talked about. She’s your employee. Make her explain what is so interesting about the piece. About any of the pieces.
Clip-clomp — Clip-clomp — Clip-clomp.
“Jenna?” she asked when she arrived.
“Yes?” Jenna said.
Just ask her. Just ask her. Just ask her.
“Did you get that order filled out for the new clients today?”
“I’m just about to submit it, actually,” Jenna answered. “I was almost done with it before I got interrupted, so I’m just checking it over now to make sure it’s correct.”
“Okay, just make sure it gets done today.”
She turned on her heel and clip-clomped down the hallway back to her office.
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